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Kathryn Bigelow has seen Selma twice and did this Q&A with the director – DuVernay just posted this on Facebook.  She called DuVernay’s film “masterful,” and indeed, it is. DuVernay’s film is, like Bigelow’s work, visually compelling throughout, telling its story not just with dialogue but with expressions. It is a thrill to see both of these directors together, defying expectations, rewriting the rules for women.

Unbroken_6

One of the strangest aspects of 2014 is how so many films have been harpooned by critics, especially those aimed for the Best Picture race. At the same time, Oscar bloggers have been winnowing down their list based on what they think milquetoast softies in the Academy, otherwise known as “they” will choose. In so doing, we’re looking at a doozy of a Best Picture race – one that inadvertently omits the most daring while huddling up to the least daring.

Three very big Oscar movies were mostly zotzed by the critics – Interstellar (74 on Metacritic), Unbroken (with a 61 so far, with 14 critics ringing in) and American Sniper (66 on Metacritic so far with 16 critics ringing in). Both both Interstellar and Sniper are hitting top ten lists throughout the net, proving that people really do love those movies. Unbroken was chosen by the Critics Choice for Best Picture and Best Director, while all three were inexplicably put on AFI’s top ten American films of the year.

So what gives? Do the critics just have a bug up their butt? Are these really good movies despite what the critics say? And will Academy voters go for them or not. If so, all three of them? 20 out of 22 pundits at Gold Derby have Unbroken predicted to be nominated. Only 2 out of 22 have Amrican Sniper predicted, 4 out of 22 have Interstellar predicted. Two of these films have fallen from a high place as once being predicted to win Best Picture before anyone saw them.

The Golden Globes did not nominate them, which is the only indication that these aren’t primed and ready for the Best Picture race. Dave Karger has all three films predicted to be nominated for Best Picture. That tells me a couple of things worth noting for the Oscar race moving forward. Maybe this is the moment that the critics and the industry at last part ways. After all, other than Boyhood, the critics have mostly embraced either foreign films like Ida or movies way too obscure for Oscar voters, like Under the Skin.

Here is the LA Weekly’s Critics Poll for Best Picture:

toptenlaweekly

Now let’s just do a quick rundown of the critics and Best Picture going back to when they expanded to ten from five, 2009.

2009
The Hurt Locker – 94
Up – 88
An Education – 85
Avatar – 83
Up in the Air – 83
District 9 – 81
A Serious Man – 79
Precious – 79
Inglorious Basterds – 69
The Blind Side – 53

2010

The Social Network – 95
Toy Story 3 – 92
Winter’s Bone – 90
The King’s Speech – 88
The Kids are All Right – 86
127 Hours – 82
True Grit – 80
Black Swan – 79
The Fighter – 79
Inception – 74

2011
Moneyball – 87
The Artist – 86
The Tree of Life – 85
The Descendants – 84
Hugo – 83
Midnight in Paris – 81
War Horse – 72
The Help – 62
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close – 46

2012
Zero Dark Thirty – 95
Amour – 94
Argo – 86
Beasts of the Southern Wild – 86
Lincoln – 86
Django Unchained – 81
Silver Linings Playbook – 81
Life of Pi – 79
Les Miserables – 63

2013

12 Years a Slave – 97
Gravity – 96
American Hustle – 90
Her – 90
Nebraska – 86
Dallas Buyers Club – 84
Captain Phillips – 83
Philomena – 76
Wolf of Wall Street – 75

So far in 2014

Boyhood – 100
Selma – 92 (11 critics)
Birdman – 89
The Grand Budapest Hotel – 88
Whiplash – 87
Foxcatcher – 82

Gone Girl – 79
Nightcrawler – 76

Interstellar – 74
Theory of Everything – 72
The Imitation Game – 72
Into the Woods – 71 (7 critics)

American Sniper – 66 (11 critics)
Unbroken – 61 (14 critics)

I’m a little perplexed how my Oscar pundit pals think this is going to play out overall.  Perhaps the Unbroken and American Sniper will see their reviews rise – that’s certainly possible since they don’t have very many so far.  But if it stays this way you start to see how films with these scores end up with in terms of nomination counts – Extremely Loud with 2, The Blind Side with 2, The Help with 4. They are movies that appeal to actors overall and thus, they end up, usually, with one acting nomination and one Best Picture nomination.  But no more than that. At least, that’s how it’s gone since 2009.

So then the other weird way Best Picture is being measured this year, in terms of how pundits are predicting films, is that they’re ignoring the critics (kind of) and they’re also ignoring box office. We’ve gone over this before but it is highly unusual to have a Best Picture lineup with hardly any films that made money in it.

Unbroken and American Sniper are hoping for huge box office and I feel strongly they will get it. So perhaps box office is a negligible point. Though it is kind of ass backwards to nominate the film and then watch it make money.

Blogger  noted the oddness in the Best Picture / box office disconnect a while back and built this chart to illustrate if 2014 was like Best Picture since 2009:

Screen-Shot-2014-12-18-at-3.51.30-PM

I’m not really sure how Best Picture is going to end up. But I do know that I am genuinely perplexed by how it seems to be going, at least so far, with the critics having rung in.  There is a vague kind of consensus forming but other than that it represents no other Oscar year I’ve seen.

I’m not sure if it means that the Oscars will embrace films that the public might – we don’t know what their reaction will be to a lot of these films. Or if everyone in my job has just decided critics no longer matter where Best Picture is concerned.

Or perhaps the review scores will start to climb and this will all be moot.

I do find it interesting, though. This year reminds me of: if Oscar bloggers and studios decided the Best Picture race.  For my part, I always look at reviews and box office as indicators of where Best Picture eventually might be found.

But what do I know? We’re just making this thing up as we go. One thing I kind of think I know at this stage of the game, I think a lot of the major pundits could be underestimating Gone Girl. And if they gave it any thought, they’d probably say I was underestimating Unbroken. I’m also wondering about Interstellar making a rally at year’s end as its international box office starts to climb the way Life of Pi’s did.

So many questions, yet no answers. Not yet.

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I’m not going to write another think piece about The Interview. But you’ve heard the rallying cry from comedians and bloggers and critics and journalists by now. Their point being: don’t let the terrorists keep a dumb (if a bit subversive) comedy from the masses because you’re being threatened by hackers. I see the importance of freedom of expression. What I also see is a giant massive protest online. Great, all for it. How I wish that the same outrage was directed at how the Sony hack showed the lengthy and systematic sexism that pervades Hollywood. Look, Seth Rogan/James Franco movies will live on. There will be fifty or so made. Hordes will flock to theaters. Money will still be made. No worries on that front.

The movie’s reviews are in the same realm as Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, currently sitting at 50%, just like this movie. One will likely go on to be a Best Picture nominee and the other will be adopted as a banner of American freedom. Anus and awkward gay jokes for ever!

But Robbie Collin over at the Telegraph did actually look more closely at what Aaron Sorkin told Maureen Dowd in a private email correspondence that has now been made news. While my own thoughts are this are that we shouldn’t be writing about what has been stolen and released to the public. We certainly shouldn’t be showing the hackers just how much damage they can do by hacking and releasing emails, which our media has gladly dived into. Pay inequality? Fuck that, let’s talk about what Scott Rudin said about Angelina Jolie. Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams got lower points than Jeremy Renner on American Hustle when the women were THE ONLY REASON ANYONE SAW THAT MOVIE. But nowhere near as juicy as racially insensitive jokes by Rudin and Pascal.

On the other hand, now that it is news it’s fair game to talk about.

Sorkin essentially says that men act circles around women, that Natalie Portman’s acting in Black Swan was so much easier than what Colin Firth did in The King’s Speech. So, first, apples and oranges. Secondly, why not cite an actress who played a royal instead? Like Helen Mirren (whom he does go on later to call one of the only really good actresses working) in The Queen? But either way, calling what Natalie Portman did in Black Swan easier than looking sad and adopting a stutter is beyond insulting and into the realm of the super stupid. She did the lose weight and transform your body thing. She did the study ballet and mostly learn how to dance thing. She was captivating, ugly, dark – she deserved that Oscar by giving the far more daring, challenging performance.

But let’s set that to the side for a moment and talk about why women don’t get the same chances as men in film. Sorkin makes good points when he says:

“[Y]ear in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress,” he wrote. “Cate [Blanchett] gave a terrific performance in Blue Jasmine but nothing close to the degree of difficulty for any of the five Best Actor nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis had to give the performance he gave in Lincoln to win – Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook, in which she did what a professional actress is supposed to be able to do.”

And:

“Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side and Al Pacino lost for both Godfather movies,” he continued. “Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can play with the boys but there just aren’t that many tour-de-force roles out there for women.”

And again, he’s right. There is a huge amount of hypocrisy here, however, because what he isn’t getting is that the reason women win for roles like Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook is that the majority of the voters are STRAIGHT MEN. This includes critics, the industry votes and the Academy. The Screen Actors Guild is the only one of the majors that has a formidable population of women voters.

Meryl Streep redefined what actresses could do the same way Robert De Niro did for actors. Transformation was the key and Streep was and is a master at it. Any time you have her nominated you know she brought it. Therefore anyone who wins against her hardly ever deserves it. Ironically, she won her second lead actress Oscar for a role that wasn’t anywhere near her best. She continues to do great work and is the gold standard for actresses. That so many of them have been inspired by her is really why things changed for actresses in the 1980s.

The list of actresses who prove Sorkin wrong (taking out Streep from the equation) – * means they didn’t win the Oscar:

Viven Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
Bette Davis, All About Eve*
Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane*
Katharine Hepburn, Long Day’s Journey into Night*
Lee Remick, The Days of Wine and Roses*
Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Audrey Hepburn, Wait Until Dark*
Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde*
Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
Cicely Tyson, Sounder*
Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ann-Marget, Tommy*
Faye Dunaway, Network
Sissy Spacek, Carrie*
Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence*
Jodie Foster, The Accused
Kathy Bates in Misery
Holly Hunter in The Piano
Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to Do with It*
Jodie Foster, Nell*
Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking
Frances McDormand in Fargo
Emily Watson for Breaking the Waves*
Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown*
Judi Dench, Iris*
Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth*
Annette Bening, American Beauty*
Charlize Theron in Monster
Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

These are a few of the standouts that I think prove Sorkin wrong about women overall.

But I do think he’s mostly right in terms of the kinds of roles women are given. However, Sorkin is not just part of the problem – he IS the problem. His dominance, his writing and his refusal to invest in women as actual people is the problem.

Sorkin’s female characters are always pretty, feminine and mostly well behaved, with just enough spark to be really fuckable and interesting. Well-behaved women seldom make history and well-behaved women can’t turn themselves inside out to show you what real acting is. We’re all too invested in their being perfect and pretty and above all NICE. Just look at how Julianne Moore’s masterful performance in Maps to the Stars is being rejected and her so much nicer and more digestible work in Still Alice is being embraced. By the way, both are magnificent awards-worthy performances. Just noting how we see women versus how we see men.

But to get performances on the level of what he’s talking about, none of those qualities can apply. But Collin really delivers this best in quoting McCarthy:

Don’t take my white, heterosexual male word for it. When I interviewed Melissa McCarthy last year, here’s what she told me: “At some point in the past it was decided that women in comedy are never supposed to be shown in an unflattering light. But in comedy you need all of your tools to be funny.

“You need to be able to look ugly, and act ugly, and be an a——, and then come grovelling back. So when actresses are cleaned up to the point that they look perfect, and dress perfect, and never act inappropriately, and never say the wrong thing, you’ve taken away every tool they have.

“And then they’re told: ‘And now be funny.’ Well, no wonder so many comic roles for women are just a wife standing there with her hands on her hips and sighing ‘Oh, Jim’. What else can you do? You have no personality left.”

The same holds for drama. Sorkin must surely realize there are more than enough great actresses in the business. He – and his fellow Hollywood scriptwriters – just have to allow them to be great.

We are fast becoming a culture that dumbs everything down to what PG-13 oriented young males will like. That isn’t the majority of ticket buyers but it is how we’ve conditioned those ticket buyers. Do we even allow for the Bette Davis’ anymore? Look at all of the ambitious young filmmakers in this year’s Oscar race. Is there a one of them who even thought about writing a film about a sick and fucked-up woman like there are sick and fucked-up men? Not a chance in hell unless your name is David Fincher or Gillian Flynn.

Sorkin is someone whose mind can be changed, I think. If he and others can only start to think about women as whole humans capable of everything from being the head anchor on a network news show to being a nightcrawler digging up dirty news, to being a young drummer who wants to be great. We are counting on the Sorkins of Hollywood to help open those doors.

bestdirector

bestdirector

The Oscar race has never been as divisive as it is in 2014, with factions splitting from the whole to create new worlds where film represents different things for different people. The critics have risen up agains the general consensus in a pronounced way, most notably by taking much of the focus off of American studio product and putting it mostly on films from other countries that have earned their admiration. Russia’s Leviathan, Poland’s Ida, France’s Two Days, One Night – good movies that ought to be considered in what should be renamed the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as it was once called at its inception. Louis B. Mayer simplified it when he removed “International” from the name.

For the past four years, Best Director has gone to someone born in a country other than America – among them, only Ang Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen. All of the others have hailed from foreign countries. It makes you wonder what the Americans are doing so wrong, why they can’t dazzle voters the way foreigners can. All that is going to change, however, as the Best Director race is already being led by several prominent Americans, like Richard Linklater, Ava DuVernay, David Fincher, Wes Anderson. They are joined by Alejandro Inarritu, the director that Anne Thompson is predicting to split with Best Picture, making the non-American winning the director category 5 years in a row.

Still, probably none of these directors have a chance of cracking either the DGA’s giant consensus vote or the smaller sampling of Academy directors who vote for the nominees in that category. The critics, though, have introduced films that might have a better chance with the Academy than with the larger guild vote.

First, a tiny factoid worth knowing if you don’t follow this website (since no other site, no other blogger that I’ve read finds this to be as important as I do). In 2012, for the first time since the DGA began handing out awards, the DGA nominees announcement came after Oscar ballots were turned in. The same thing happened last year. The same thing is going to happen again this year.

Here’s how it went down:

2013

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

2012

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ang Lee, Life of Pi Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Ben Affleck, Argo David O. Russell, Silver Linings
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Michael Haneke Amour
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

2011

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist+
Martin Scorsese, Hugo Martin Scorsese, Hugo*
Alexander Payne, The Descendants Alexander Payne, The Descendants*
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris*
David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Terrence Malick, Tree of Life*

2010

Tom Hooper The King’s Speech Tom Hooper the King’s Speech+
David Fincher, Social Network David Fincher, Social Network*
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan*
David O’Russell, The Fighter David O’Russell, The Fighter*
Christopher Nolan, Inception* The Coens, True Grit*

2009

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Bigelow, Hurt Locker+
Lee Daniels, Precious Lee Daniels, Precious*
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air Jason Reitman, Up in the Air*
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds*
Jim Cameron, Avatar Jim Cameron, Avatar*

You can check out our DGA/Best Picture chart here to see how they lined up in previous years, but what’s most interesting to note is what happened two years ago, when the consensus picks Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were left of the Academy’s list. It caused quite a bit of uproar and was just one of the other details about Zero Dark Thirty and Argo that tied them together. Argo was “Zero Dark Thirty lite,” or “Zero Dark Thirty if the Americans were the good guys.” The one thing everyone seemed sure of was that both of those directors would be nominated.

But in a race with more than five Best Picture contenders, you’re not necessarily looking at Best Director the same way anymore. You’re looking at splitting up the two categories, not just how the Ben Affleck year, and the following year did it, where you had a split between Picture and director, but how you think about best Picture overall.

Academy voters have five slots to put down their nominees for Best Picture of the Year. Only five. Yet the race allows for more than five. The only real way we have of knowing how popular a film is overall with the Academy is how many branches nominate that film, but I’m going to go one further and say ESPECIALLY the director category.

The reason is that Director and Picture have been tied together for almost as long as the Academy has given out awards, give or take an early decade or two, but especially once they agreed to hand out five Best Picture nominees and five Best Director nominees.

While last year’s lineup, compared to the DGA, only missed one name, 2012’s missed three of the five names. That was a crazy irregularity when you look back on DGA/Academy history.

So if you go by nominations overall and look at what films were nominated for Best Picture in 2012 and what films were nominated for Best Director you can kind of see which films had the consensus, and therefore had a better shot at the DGA, and which films didn’t.

Let’s start with who did get nominated for Best Director that year:

Ang Lee, Life of Pi (11 nominations)
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln (11 nominations)
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook (9 nominations)
Michael Haneke, Amour (5 nominations)
Benh Zietlin, Beasts (4 nominations)

And what remaining films were there?

Argo (7 nominations)
Les Miserables (8 nominations)
Zero Dark Thirty (6 nominations)
Django Unchained (5 nominations)

The DGA went for the following five:
Ang Lee
Steven Spielberg
Ben Affleck
Kathryn Bigelow
Tom Hooper

The DGA reflects the broader, more popular tastes, which explains why these films have such high nominations. The one exception is Silver Linings Playbook which did not get a DGA nod but did get an Academy nomination.

Further complicating things, and I know it’s confusing by now, but Oscar changed how they counted Best Picture. In 2009 and 2010 they had a straight ten for Best Picture, with no wiggle room. But in 2011, 2012 and 2013, they had members choose five of their favorite Best Pictures and then expanded the list depending on what kind of numbers they got. It was supposed to be anywhere from 5 to 10 but it has solidly turned up as 9. So close and yet so far. Having 10 allowed for much more diversity in the lineup.

Now let’s fold in the Critics Choice and the Golden Globes and see where we are:

2013

Globes | Critics Choice | DGA | Oscar

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle David O. Russell, American Hustle David O. Russell, American Hustle David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze, Her

2012

Globes | Critics Choice | DGA | Oscar

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln Steven Spielberg, Lincoln Steven Spielberg, Lincoln Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ang Lee, Life of Pi Ang Lee, Life of Pi Ang Lee, Life of Pi Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Ben Affleck, Argo Ben Affleck, Argo Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty Michael Haneke Amour
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables Tom Hooper, Les Miserables Quentin Tarantino, Django Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
David O. Russell, Silver Linings David O. Russell, Silver Linings

2011

Globes | Critics Choice | DGA | Oscar

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist+ Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist+
Martin Scorsese, Hugo Martin Scorsese, Hugo Martin Scorsese, Hugo Martin Scorsese, Hugo*
Alexander Payne, The Descendants Alexander Payne, The Descendants* Alexander Payne, The Descendants Alexander Payne, The Descendants*
Steven Spielberg, War Horse Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris* Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris*
Daldry, Extremely Loud Ides of March, Clooney David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Terrence Malick, Tree of Life*
Nicolas Refn, Drive

2010

Globes | Critics Choice | DGA | Oscar

 

Tom Hooper The King’s Speech Tom Hooper the King’s Speech+ Tom Hooper The King’s Speech Tom Hooper the King’s Speech+
David Fincher, Social Network David Fincher, Social Network* David Fincher, Social Network David Fincher, Social Network*
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan* Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan*
Danny Boyle, 12 Hrs David O’Russell, The Fighter* David O’Russell, The Fighter David O’Russell, The Fighter*
Christopher Nolan, Inception* Christopher Nolan, Inception* Christopher Nolan, Inception*
Joel/Ethan Coen True Grit The Coens, True Grit*

2009

Globes | Critics Choice | DGA | Oscar

 

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Bigelow, Hurt Locker+ Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Bigelow, Hurt Locker+
Lee Daniels, Precious Lee Daniels, Precious Lee Daniels, Precious*
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air Jason Reitman, Up in the Air* Jason Reitman, Up in the Air Jason Reitman, Up in the Air*
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds* Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds*
Jim Cameron, Avatar Jim Cameron, Avatar* Jim Cameron, Avatar Jim Cameron, Avatar*
Clint Eastwood, Invictus Clint Eastwood, Invictus

 

The only time the Globes and the BFCA matched on Best Director where their chosen film did not get in for Best Picture was in 2009, for Invictus. In all other years, when the Globes and Critics Choice matched on Best Director that movie was, at the very least, chosen for Best Picture.

So how is that list looking right now?

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay – Selma Ava DuVernay – Selma
David Fincher – Gone Girl David Fincher – Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Angelina Jolie – Unbroken

This doesn’t prove how the race is going to go but it does show a rough, early consensus of how it might go. The one thing we can be mostly certain about is that the Globes won’t match Oscar 5/5 in the Best Director category, at least going by these years. There is a much higher chance for an Oscar Best Picture nomination for all of the Globe-nominated directors than an Oscar Best Director nod.

This is a strange year with Best Picture contenders floating into the race and dominating, despite their mostly no-name directors. Two of them, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Neither director, so far, of either film has shown up in any major or minor awards. Of course, with the Oscar race for Best Director there are only two groups that count, the Directors Guild and the Academy. I’ll add a third, the Editors because editors work so closely with directors that you can almost always unify them.

First, why haven’t Morton Tyldum and James Marsh gained any traction? Who are they and why are they here? It’s either that no one really knows who they are or it’s that their films don’t have distinguishing characteristics about them that push these names above the other directors, the ones whose style takes prominence over the story. With the two British offerings, they are probably viewed on the same scale, or they cancel one another out, as suspected. If Tom Hooper got in, why can’t either of these two? Probably because there are two.

2014 feels all over the place to me, with the smallest possible consensus in the Best Director race emerging as:

1. Linklater
2. Inarritu
3. DuVernay
4. Fincher
5. Anderson

I’d order them that way, with the likelihood of either Anderson or Fincher to be replaced at the Oscars with someone else — but who that someone else might be is a mystery until we hear from the DGA.

The DGA is probably more inclined to pick Fincher because they picked him for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which tells me they admire his work overall. But the Academy didn’t. I’m not getting my hopes up for a directing nomination at the Oscars but Best Picture is looking much more likely. Gone Girl is, to me, up there with Selma and Boyhood as the film of the year so it’s a no-brainer to me to imagine a directing five but I’m going to bet that the Academy is going to be more inclined to pick someone in the realm of:

Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morton Tyldum, Imitation Game
James Marsh, Theory of Everything
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken

Honestly, beyond Linklater, Inarritu and DuVernay I have no idea what direction Best Director is headed. Then again, I remember saying in 2012 that the only sure bets were Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck. Ava DuVernay is likely to make Academy history this year so even without Gone Girl in the running it will be a fantastic year for AwardsDaily.

January 8 The Academy’s ballots are turned in
January 12 The DGA’s final ballots are turned in
January 13 DGA’s nominee announcement
January 15 The Academy’s nominee announcement

We are dwelling in a new kind of Oscar race where we’re looking at more than five for Best Picture but still five for Best Director and it doesn’t necessarily follow anymore than the director winner is going to match with Best Picture. That must be why Anne Thompson is predicting a split year between Birdman and Boyhood. I’m not feeling a split year, though. I think it’s Linklater and Boyhood all the way.

actor

actor

The Best Actress race has come down to six names. Julianne Moore in the lead with Still Alice, right behind her Reese Witherspoon for Wild and Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl. Next in line would be Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The fifth slot is still pretty tricky. The critics put forth their support for Marion Cotillard. But the Screen Actors Guild went for Jennifer Aniston over Cotillard, and what I thought that fifth slot would be, the very deserving Hilary Swank.

The problem for Swank is twofold. 1) she’s won Best Actress twice already. That removes a sense of urgency to nominate her. Aniston has never been nominated and, like Sandra Bullock, has been a reliable work horse and popular actress for years. 2) The Homesman has not been embraced as it might have been, or as it should have been. Swank’s brutally raw performance was not uplifting enough for many women critics who seem to need their heroines to always be empowered, positive role models (blech, how boring). And the way Swank’s character disappears from the film left many unsatisfied. I thought it was a daring move for director Tommy Lee Jones. The Homesman was, for me, one of the best films I saw this year but the Oscar race is a popularity contest. Usually the most liked celebrities, if they really work the circuit, get in.

That leaves us with five–
Moore – SAG, GG
Witherspoon — SAG, GG
Pike — SAG, GG
Jones – SAG, GG
Aniston — SAG, GG

There is some wiggle room, I think, with Aniston and Jones but at this stage of the game I would consider them locked. Surprise nominees would be Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Beyond the Lights in a last minute surge, or Cotillard.
Our winner: Julianne Moore for Still Alice

Best Supporting Actress possibilities are wide-ranging, once again, with potent roles women because that’s mainly what women get to do in Hollywood films – be supporting characters. But we seem to have our locked five with this group:
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood –SAG, GG
Emma Stone, Birdman — SAG, GG
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game –SAG
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods — SAG, GG

And then we get to the fifth slot, which will most likely be filled by Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, which earned a Golden Globe nomination but not the SAG. The SAG went to Naomi Watts for St. Vincent. There was a last minute push for Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer but that hasn’t materialized. It certainly could show up as a surprise pick by the Swinton-loving Academy. Laura Dern was once the favorite to be nominated in the fifth but my money, right now, is on Chastain.
Our winner: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Actor is likewise locked, with the first four names showing up everywhere:
JK Simmons, Whiplash SAG, GG
Edward Norton, Birdman SAG, GG
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher SAG, GG
Robert Duvall, The Judge SAG, GG
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood SAG, GG

The problem with choosing a winner in this category is that it’s likely going to come down to Best Picture heat. While I think Simmons has this, Norton could be in the more liked film overall, Birdman. There’s just no telling what the Academy will do but if Birdman is nominated for Best Picture and Whiplash isn’t, you can probably figure Norton could take it in a surprise win. Smart money right now is on Simmons.
Our winner: JK Simmons, Whiplash

Best Actor
The year started with the Best Actor category filled up by the time Telluride rolled around. Michael Keaton took the lead out of Venice with his undeniably brilliant, vulnerable turn as Riggan in Birdman. The next one to launch was Benedict Cumberbatch with his heartbreaking portrayal of Alan Turing. I just watched it again last night and it’s just a dazzling performance, top to bottom. Then came The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne as the charming, brilliant Stephen Hawking. Such a great performance by Redmayne, whose career so far hadn’t really hinted at this kind of physical transformation he was capable of. These three contenders are the stars of the top contending Best Pictures. It’s a toss up between the three of them at the moment for the win.

There was also Steve Carell out of Cannes with his icy turnaround performance as John Dupont in Foxcatcher. Carell lost to Timothy Spall for Mr. Turner, the other strong contender in the Best Actor race. And then there is David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the best performances I saw all year. Finally, the biggest threat for the fifth slot is Jake Gyllenhaal, as a creepy sociopath in Nightcrawler.

It’s looking, so far, like this:
Michael Keaton, Birdman SAG, GG
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything SAG, GG
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game SAG, GG
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler SAG, GG
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher SAG, GG
David Oyelowo, Selma – GG
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner – Cannes

Generally speaking, the SAG Best Actor category usually goes on to be nominated at the Oscars. But, as you can see, it’s a mind blowing toss-up. The only reason I have little sympathy for the embarrassment of riches in the Best Actor category is that it should be equally crowded for women. There should be more parts for women and I hope that women can eventually be afforded the same freedom as men to explore the wide spectrum of the human experience. Just look at the flak David Fincher and Gillian Flynn have taken — especially from Manohla Dargis at the New York Times who not only can’t let it go but feels the need to bring it up yet again in her Best Of list. Nobody thinks twice about Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher being negative portrayals of men. But when it comes to women? They have to be put in that cage continually.

Okay, back to Best Actor — I don’t know which way this thing is going to go, honestly. It’s likely Keaton’s to loose, I figure, based on what will be the overall popularity of Birdman. But Redmayne would make me nervous because his is the kind of performance where the heart gets involved. The heart can often override any other impulse in picking a winner.

Finally, there is the very popular Cumberbatch, who plays a troubled genius with Asperger’s who also must suppress his sexuality.

If Redmayne doesn’t just take it from the outset, it could come down to how the winners appear at the mic. The most charming of the three could tip the odds in his favor. Publicity will, as usual, count for a lot, but not all.

As of now, we’re at a stalemate.

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Check out the full list below. Winners will be announced Dec. 15. And as always, well, you know: The Circuit.

Best Film
“Boyhood”
“Gone Girl”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Nightcrawler”
“Selma”
“The Theory of Everything”

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
David Fincher, “Gone Girl”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Dan Gilroy, “Nightcrawler”

Best Actor
Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Brendan Gleeson, “Calvary”
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler”
Tom Hardy, “Locke”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”
Hilary Swank, “The Homesman”
Mia Wasikowska, “Tracks”

Best Supporting Actor
Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”
Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”
Edward Norton, “Birdman”
J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”
Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Carrie Coon, “Gone Girl”
Keira Knightly, “The Imitation Game”
Rene Russo, “Nightcrawler”
Emma Stone, “Birdman”

Best Original Screenplay
“Birdman”
“Boyhood”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Locke”
“Nightcrawler”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“The Fault in Our Stars”
“Gone Girl”
“The Theory of Everything”
“Unbroken”
“Wild”

Best Foreign Language Film
“Force Majeure”
“Heli”
“Ida”
“Two Days, One Night”
“Venus in Fur”

Best Documentary
“CITIZENFOUR”
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”
“Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“Life Itself”

Best Animated Film
“Big Hero 6″
“The Boxtrolls”
“How to Train Your Dragon 2″
“The LEGO Movie”
“The Nut Job”

Best Cinematography
“Force Majeure” (Fredrik Wenzel)
“Interstellar” (Hoyte van Hoytema)
“Gone Girl” (Jeff Cronenweth)
“Nightcrawler” (Robert Elswit)
“Unbroken” (Roger Deakins)

Best Editing
“Boyhood” (Sandra Adair)
“Edge of Tomorrow” (James Herbert, Laura Jennings)
“Gone Girl” (Kirk Baxter)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Barney Pilling)
“Nightcrawler” (John Gilroy)

Best Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pincock)
“Into the Woods” (Dennis Gassner & Anna Pinnock)
“The Theory of Everything” (John Paul Kelly)
“The Imitation Game” (Maria Djurkovic)
“Interstellar” (Nathan Crowley)

Best Score

“Birdman” (Antonio Sanchez)
“Gone Girl” (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Alexandre Desplat)
“The Imitation Game” (Alexandre Desplat)
“Nightcrawler” (James Newton Howard)

Best Ensemble
“Birdman”
“Boyhood”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Selma”

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Ava DuVernay made history today becoming the first black female director nominated for a Golden Globe Award. While it was looking not so great for Selma after the SAG shut out and the dismissive “New Generation” award from the LA Film Critics, the more high profile (and more gender-diverse, to be sure) HFPA went for Selma in a big way.

While the core frontrunners were not shaken, even without director nominations for The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, Selma is giving them some major heat, as is Gone Girl. This came as a shock to me, I must admit. I did not think Gone Girl was their thing, and I was starting to lose hope for Selma. But this is a big get, despite every negative thing I’ve said about the HFPA in the last 24 hours. The fact of the matter is, with any of these awards — no matter what their level of prestige — they offer validity to ambiguity.

A few films and contenders were left off the list — notably, Whiplash is nowhere to be found except for Supporting Actor. Hilary Swank seems to be supplanted by Jennifer Aniston, at least for today. Whether that shift will translate to the Academy is still a big question mark. It might. It might not.

Unbroken’s fate is likewise iffy. The complete shutout of the Angelina Jolie film seems particularly odd, given their love for having someone like Jolie at their show, and it makes me wonder if enough of the Hollywood Foreign Press saw Unbroken.

All in all, there wasn’t a single embarrassing misstep for these Globes. And that is, perhaps, most surprising of all.

I did not predict well over at Gold Derby, I’m afraid. I was counting on the forecasts by my better predicting pals who were steering this ship not in Gone Girl’s favor. As of yesterday, Karger, switched his Unbroken prediction for the win (as so many have this season) finally to Boyhood, as the pundits all begin to realize we have another Artist year on our hands where one film is going to clean sweep the season.

But I think they greatly underestimated Gone Girl’s appeal, although never say never. Remember, the Globes are sometimes the kiss of death or a last gasp before the industry comes along and kills any and all dreams. It’s always fine and dandy until the Producers Guild announces.

I think Whiplash, maybe Unbroken, maybe American Sniper are still going to show up on the PGA’s list. The DGA is going to be tricky, as with the Globes director. One thing in Gone Girl’s favor, however, is that it’s more common for the directing category at the Globes to predict Oscar’s Best Picture than it is even their Best Picture category, that’s because they split picture into two categories but still only have five slots for Director. Five slots makes it more competitive. So that could mean Gone Girl is in, ultimately, for Best Picture but a director nod is still up in the air.

The big news today, however, is Ms. DuVernay kicking ass and taking names. Although some may be inclined to a coarse interpretation of awards voters overall, to say that they “did the black thing” last year with 12 Years a Slave. When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won in their top categories on the same night in 2001, many skeptic latched onto to the falsehood that the Academy “did the black thing.” From then on, indeed throughout their 87 years of Oscar history, no other black actress has ever won in a lead role.

Still, when I saw Selma I didn’t see a “black thing.” I saw an American thing. I saw a story about black and white people – Martin Luther King, Jr. and LBJ. I saw injustice in the voting rights of American citizens. I saw a community of protesters, black and white, following King. He’s an American civil rights hero. Civil rights are meant for all of us, not just those who were prevented from registering to vote or sitting at lunch counters or drinking from water fountains or swimming in public pools.

It is our shame, our recent shame, in the white community that continues to treat stories like these as “black things” and not American things.

That’s my speech for today. I thought I would wake up despairing. I was pretty sure Selma and Gone Girl would be shut out. Why does it matter so much to me? Because I care about things that seem unfair. I’m a middle child so it comes down to that. Apologies for sounding like a broken record.

1) Selma is a great film. I felt the major critics in the big cities so far have done to it what they did to 12 Years a Slave last year — casually shove it aside. True, they didn’t have the option of giving out more awards than “best.” I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. Some were interesting. Some were fantastic. Some allowed for a deep intellectual dive. Some were entertaining but didn’t go much deeper than that. But when it comes to giving out awards there has to be something bigger involved than just liking something. We like things every day on Facebook – that doesn’t make them award worthy. The Oscars are meant to reflect the “highest achievements in film,” not just reward good movies. The consensus, I think, does reflect those highest achievements, even if they aren’t the favorites of the internet.

2) When a film like Gone Girl, that was adapted by Gillian Flynn because David Fincher insisted that no male screenwriter be hired, makes 163 million at the box office (and counting) as an R rated film with an uncomfortable, ambiguous ending, from a major studio in town, that stars, is produced by and written by women? That is a high achievement in film. What has bothered me all year, and might bother me in the weeks ahead, is the casual dismissal of this film when it is so blatantly earns its spot among the most significant films of the year. No other studio movie was as talked about or ruminated on as this one. We can’t exist in our own little bubble. Movies are still, last time I checked, made for audiences, not critics, not awards bloggers, not even industry voters.

There, that’s my speech for this morning. For now, hope – the thing with feathers – springs eternal. In the end, the Scott Feinbergs and the Dave Kargers et all could prove right. With five slots for Best Picture it’s unlikely enough Academy members will reward Gone Girl with a Best Picture nomination. In the end, inconceivably to many of us, Selma could be shut out for the major categories too – But that’s not today.

This is how I think Best Picture will go:

Boyhood
Birdman
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Selma
Foxcatcher
Gone Girl
Whiplash

Fringe dwellers because who knows:
Mr. Turner
Nightcrawler
Into the Woods

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The recent death of Mike Nichols seemed almost like the final nail in the coffin for the last generation of great directors. We know that isn’t true, of course, but something about it felt like someone had just turned on the bright lights. You could suddenly see everything just as it was, not how we all wish it would be. The fact was — Nichols is gone and there really isn’t anyone who can replace that kind of person.

Suddenly, the paltry scraps Hollywood dishes out for women’s roles seem all the more paltry next to the fascinating character studies in Mike Nichols’ films. Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sure, that was Edward Albee’s writing and Liz Taylor’s acting but it was Mike Nichols’ keen sense of how to balance humor and despair that made it the masterpiece it was. This was also true of The Graduate, even Silkwood. Nichols dove so deeply into his characters that he would never have settled for the kinds of paper-thin supporting characters filmmakers throw in today to satisfy a quota or help move the protagonist toward his goal. Mike Nichols did not come from film school. He didn’t come out of the world of economy and the new school of film criticism that demands a product be “flawless” or else it isn’t good. The last thing Mike Nichols did was value mingy economy and superficial style over depth and understanding.

The greatest living director who hadn’t worked on the big screen in a while, Nichols’ passing comes at a time when the films available for the awards race seem a tad thin. Part of that is that money and efforts are concentrated elsewhere — movies are so hard to get made now that the best talent around is heading for TV. We better save David Fincher fast or he’ll never work in movies again. David Lynch, headed for TV. Soderbergh? TV. Making a movie now means running it through an unbearable gauntlet that starts with studio heads, financiers, and eventually ends with a fickle public that can get the message out to their followers at lightning speed. In between, the publicists are desperate to sell the films for awards, for attention — for anything. Cinemascore, opening weekend… is it any wonder that Mike Nichols’ passing felt like such a grim reminder of better days, better films, a better relationship between filmmakers and audiences. We have all become critics, you see, and somewhere in there is absent the love and enthusiasm for the art itself.

The beauty though still remains in the handful of heroes who still call themselves directors. Those coming up, hoping for big things, and those masters of the craft, working at the tip top of their game, leading films headlong into a Best Picture race that is full of nothing but question marks.

2014 is marked so far by some remarkable talents, some familiar, some not. Some new, some continuing to build what will be an astonishing body of work. Maybe someday they can have the kind of backstory and library Mike Nichols had. Maybe things work like that. Maybe things will get better. Maybe.

We tend to look for movies by directors that fit inside the Oscar box. But what most people forget about the Oscar race is that there is no box. There is only impressive work, when it’s at its best. When the Oscar machine is healthy it recognizes high achievements regardless of genre. We can encourage directors who stand on the edge of a very high cliff and dive off it, even when their spectacular risks are half failures, half magnificent attempts at something just beyond their grasp, some kind of rich, unforgettable couple of hours in a dark theater staring up at a lighted screen.

Then there are the directors whose work is a success by any definition except the Oscar one. Pundits dumb it way down by stuffing every film they see into that round hole — no matter what exquisite shape it is. If it fits that round hole it goes in the pile. Forget that at the end of it you have nothing but little circles that all look alike. It will fit, dammit, because that’s what the Oscar race is: fitting things in round holes.

But maybe because the great Mike Nichols is no longer with us, I’m feeling the need to celebrate the great directors who are working today, especially the masters and those who have been slowly building up to be being masters. They are the visionaries, still there with their hands on the wheel, guiding the story, taking the heat, suffering the losses, basking in the successes.

Here are my top five of 2014 (but I still haven’t seen Unbroken)

David Fincher

No American director has ignited such divisive and enthralling debate as David Fincher, a student of great film, a philosopher of a kind, and an artist with an unparalled eye, he is a director who sees the world from deep underneath, layer by layer stripped back to expose a hard truth. The artist is alive and vibrant within Fincher, yet his movies don’t envelope you in a swaddle of comfort — they are the edgiest of multifaceted pegs that can’t be stuffed into the round hole no matter what. He is cursed twice by a fan-base that always wants to the “Fincher-esque” experience, films and curiosities that Fincher passed through years ago. He’s onto different things, which is probably the best reason to appreciate what he’s done this year with Gone Girl, the most successful and talked about film of 2014.

Why does Gone Girl work? Because it is both a twist on a famous book and also a mirror image to America’s fascination with self. We are holding up a mirror to ourselves constantly, the cell phone camera, or the security camera, or the computer camera. We take who we are and we transform it into something most perfect. Gillian Flynn captured on the page the inner workings of a woman who never really had a chance to find out who she was. She was optioned at birth by parents whose own obsession with image swallowed up their daughter’s identity which then became subverted, which then became manipulative and twisted. Gone Girl freaks people out because it’s supposed to. It is an exacting, funny, chilly study of modern America as it topples all around us. What do we have to cling to in the end but our besotted obsession with self. I don’t know about you but no other film I saw this year made me think as much, offered me the chance to dive deeply into it. His third collaboration with Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross makes Gone Girl almost seem like a trilogy that follows up The Social Network and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — one of them solely about the male-driven tech world, the second one about a girl working within that world and the third about a girl completely out of that world but somehow all of it in keeping with the idea of being watched, stalked, recorded, managed. This is a recurring theme in Fincher’s films, particularly the masterpiece Zodiac (all but ignored by awards groups), three collaborations with Brad Pitt (Fight Club, Seven and Benjamin Button), the equally ignored Panic Room, and of course, the most underrated of his entire body of work, The Game.

Gone Girl’s chances in the Oscar race, though, aren’t determined by ticket buyers who kept it in the top five for eight straight weeks, not by those who recognize Fincher’s growing, impressive body of work, but by the lack of imagination of Oscar pundits who see its square shape and look at that round hole and think – nope. Can’t do it. Can’t fit it in. Is that really the kind of Best Picture race Oscar voters want? I doubt it. But what do I know. I just work here.

Richard Linklater

You don’t have to watch the documentary made about Linklater’s career to realize his contribution to American film, the path he has carved for himself that is unlike any other. Linklater has gone to school by studying life and he’s turned that knowledge into cinematic rumination on the human experience and all of its major driving forces, love, rebellion, loss, childhood and ultimately the meaning of it all. There aren’t many filmmakers whose commitment to real life storytelling is as piercing as Linklater’s at his best. The humble and soft spoken director made Slacker in 1991, then Dazed and Confused in 1993. It is almost twenty years later that he’s given us Boyhood. Linklater’s 12-year study on the rapid passing of time as we grow up seems, to me, the culmination of his entire canon in one movie. It has great music, it has thoughtful dialogue, it has strong women leading the way, and it has Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s surrogate and muse. Boyhood stands out and remains strong because there is no other film like it. Linklater has gone from improvisational style to firm command of the form. It is spectacular — not because the critics said so but because it a life changing experience to watch that movie.

Boyhood is edited together so that you never really know when time is passing. Linklater wasn’t interested in making a big deal out of it. Rather, he wanted you to have the sensation of watching a film. When a whole year has gone by it is marked merely by a single cut. Of course, the actors have all aged and lived their own lives. There is one cut that stands out particularly well and that’s when the young lead, Ellar Coltrane, goes from that innocent look in his youthful eye to a knowing one. Whatever happened to make him change we don’t see. The change simply appears. Anyone whose raised a kid knows how fast things can change.

Boyhood is a film about teachers. You never know when you will stumble upon them just that they leave you significantly marked. This film shows how good and bad teachers can make equal impact on a person’s life. By the end you feel as though you’ve watched this young boy evolve into a fine young man. It tears out your heart, the swiftness of it all. There is nothing more difficult than the knowledge that life only moves in one direction. Boyhood is a reminder of how fast it all goes.

Linklater’s film is in the top spot not because it’s an Oscar movie that fits into the round hole but because it’s a GOOD movie, a great movie. So far, there isn’t another that can beat it.

Alejandro G. Inarritu

The Mexican director burst onto the scene with Amores Perros, a harrowing story about loss told in three parts. He then went darker and deeper with 21 Grams — a film about the weight of spiritual energy lost at the moment of death. He went back to the varying narratives of people’s lives with Babel in 2006, then dove powerfully into the concept of dying with Biutiful. In its own way, Biutiful most resembles his latest masterpiece, Birdman. It follows the downward spiral of its main character through the people who know him on his way to destruction, with no way out. No way out is a common thread throughout Inarritu’s work, as is magic realism, on display most vibrantly and unexpectedly in Birdman, the director’s funniest film to date. Birdman is, as Glenn Kenny called it, virtuoso directing. It is ferocious, flawless in its execution. It shows a director with an assured hand, with 100% focus on the story as it unfolds. Working with his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a cast of actors who had to know this thing line by line the way you would if you were doing a play, Birdman is the cinematic opposite of Boyhood. If the Oscar race were a cage of animals, Gone Girl would be the mysterious cat by the window, Boyhood would be the sweet puppy dog staring out the window with his tail wagging and Birdman would be the hysterical, carping winged creature trying to fly out but hitting itself against the windows, against the walls – bang, fly fly fly, bang.

Birdman finds a hero thrown out of the trappings of an actor stuck in a superhero’s costume. It comes at a time when there is just one superhero movie announcement after another. The latest great actor to have to put on a goofy costume to entertain the little boys whose mommies buy them tickets for some afternoon fun. It’s bigger than that, let’s face it, it’s birth to death branding that starts by aiming toys and products at the kids then it’s merely a seamless step in the same direction to get them all hyped up about the latest product. Poor Riggan, perfectly embodied by Michael Keaton, who reaches, finally, for some kind of substance in his blanched out world. Like Biutiful, this is a slow spiral towards the end because, frankly, there isn’t anywhere else to go. Though maybe you could also say that Birdman is about how none of that matters at all, how what matters in the end, as with most things, whose sleeping next to you at night, who you love – what we talk about when we talk about love.

Inarritu’s film is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings — where you don’t really know what kind of miracle you have on your hands because you’re always looking for something else. It isn’t that Inarritu wants to leave you with a sappy message, particularly – but it’s there if you want to look for it.

Ava DuVernay

What a thrill to watch this director evolve from 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, which was about a woman’s coming of age. DuVernay focused on the internal world of her lead character, while also focusing on the people who were invested in aiming her life in different directions. DuVernay was rewarded Best Director at Sundance for that movie, which helped propel her to a bigger stage so that when Plan B set about making a film about the March on Selma they thought of Ava DuVernay, taking a pretty big risk with a director known for smaller indie films. Selma does not trade away anything that made Middle of Nowhere so great — but rather keeps the story as intimate and personal as her previous films, even when dealing with one of the most famous civil rights heroes in American history.

Selma is a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. as man and myth but it never forgets he’s a man first. Lead actor David Oyelowo won’t let us forget it as he delivers one of the most memorable performances of the year, every bit as stirring as watching the old footage of King delivering his famous speeches. Selma comes at a time when the country watches Ferguson burning. The small white minority government controlling the large black majority citizenry is the same dynamic that was occurring in Selma. Because voter registration prevented black citizens from sitting on juries, changing the laws, they were continually at the mercy of a culture still stuck in the confederacy, and in many ways, is still stuck there.

But Selma would not be one of the best films of the year if it was only a history lesson, as vivid as that history may be. It is vibrant, alive storytelling in the hands of an inexplicably talented director who has broken every rule society would place in front of her. She’s not young, she’s not white and she’s not male – which is the list of ingredients people seem to want when finding the breakout director of the year. DuVernay and Jennifer Kent are showing the world what women are really capable of behind the camera and it’s quite something to see, indeed, nothing I’d ever imagined I’d see in my lifetime.

Selma, like Gone Girl, is a film that can be enjoyed by the people “out there” as well as those in “in here” ticking off their list of requirements for what defines a “flawless” movie for them, or an “Oscar worthy” movie for them. I’ll always remember my writing teacher saying “there are only two genres. Good movies and bad movies.”

Paul Thomas Anderson

Here is a director devoted completely to his own singular vision as a filmmaker, like all of the filmmakers on this list. From Boogie Nights, to Magnolia to There Will be Blood to The Master — his films do not seek to explain things and never have, although one could make the argument that they’ve gotten increasingly harder to understand. The Master, like his latest, Inherent Vice, exist somewhere in symbolism and absurdity — meaning everything and meaning nothing at the same time. To love his films is to be able to admit that. If you need to understand them you will find them frustrating at best, at worst you will force your own meaning onto them and thereby missing everything else they are. They are not really so much literal stories as they are impressionistic takes on people and the times they live in. Both The Master and Inherent Vice are really films about unforgettable love. Both star Joaquin Phoenix ambling through in a dreamlike state, as though he doesn’t really even get what is happening to him. The Master took place just before Inherent Vice and perhaps that is why they can maybe work well as companion pieces, even though they are wildly different in their origin stories.

The Master is about learning control. It is about how people will try to sell you all manner of products and theories and beliefs to help you control your impulses, to help you behave normally. Inherent Vice is about the aftermath when that illusion implodes. Where Phoenix’s character ends up in The Master is where he finds himself, in a way, in Inherent Vice — all the while that romantic illusion haunts both films.

I don’t know how we got so lucky to have such a great director working within the American studio system. But lucky we are.

Mike Leigh

When you think about compromise the last person you can come up with is Mike Leigh – you can’t buy him off because making money isn’t his ultimate goal. He seeks to tell the stories that fascinate him, and to work with a team of actors to find that authentic. He hasn’t normally worked on such a large canvas as he does with Mr. Turner. His films tend towards reflecting the inner worlds of their characters but here, he has to paint the world as Turner saw it. He has to create that breathtaking canvas because otherwise no one would ever understand why and how Turner got where he did.

Grumblingly incoherent, freakishly attractive, Mr. Turner is not your average film protagonist. He is probably a little like Leigh sees himself and in that way, this is as close to a self-portrait as you’re going to get with this very talented auteur. While you can’t really put Mr. Turner in a box as a “flawless” film – I dare you to even try to use that word when talking about it. It is a reminder of the days when films were about real costumes, real dialogue, real actors. Does it mean Hollywood has sold itself out that it doesn’t support movies this very often? Probably.

They barely support movies like Gone Girl and look at how that turned out. Stories like one are risky. Thankfully for Mike Leigh he still has an appreciative audience cheering him on.

Bennett Miller

Miller is a director who follows in Mike Nichols’ footsteps. He is worthy of that title because he, like Nichols, focuses so deeply on, and all of his stories spring from, character. Capote was about a great writer’s obsession with a crime and a killer. Moneyball was about a baseball player finding his own heroism in the most unlikely circumstances and Foxcatcher goes much deeper, hewing more closely to Capote in that it illustrates a madman who built himself a wrestling team then pretended to play the game as though he actually believed in following the rules. Foxcatcher is not the literal retelling of the John DuPont murder so much as it is a larger extrapolation of monstrous American wealth. When I think of the film I see the oligarchy our country has become. They have bought themselves out of playing by the rules that the rest of us must. They don’t need to anymore because they have all or most of the wealth. All they need to do now is buy the government.

That might seem a bit extreme, and indeed Foxcatcher is really more about the relationships between three men than it is about the country’s leadership, but in 2014 it’s hard to separate them. Fincher’s Gone Girl, Inarritu’s Birdman and Miller’s Foxcatcher are two films that paint a picture of American life defined by its limited options. In each of them, desperate times call for desperate measures but for different reasons. Foxcatcher, like Gone Girl and Birdman is filmed beautifully, told brilliantly — though it leaves people cold. And that’s a good thing.

Christopher Nolan

While Interstellar might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no denying what a major risk the director took in remaining so fully committed to making the film he wanted to make. While it isn’t his best film it is most certainly his most ambitious and for that he earns respect. Films these days that are aimed at wide audiences and aren’t branded within an inch of their lives don’t do as well at the box office and that’s a shame. We aren’t conditioned anymore to think for ourselves. We’re conditioned to get exactly what we pay for, satisfaction guaranteed. So to see a film like Interstellar will be challenging for anyone. Audiences seem divided on it. Me, I admire what he was going for – and would never want to discourage any successful filmmaker from taking those kinds risks. Go big or go home.

Wes Anderson

Probably there isn’t a more definitive artist who works on film these days than Anderson, who like David Lynch before him, must carve out his own universe every time he makes a movie. Here, it is the Grand Budapest Hotel — an odd assemblage of characters and character actors all existing within Anderson’s diorama. This isn’t real life at all — this is completely imaginary. By this point, though, Anderson has developed enough of a following that many people turn out to see his films, making Grand Budapest his most successful to date. It’s hard to talk about film in 2014 without mentioning Anderson.

JC Chandor

While A Most Violent Year isn’t as thought provoking as Margin Call, and it isn’t as experimental as All Is Lost, it is nevertheless a film that illustrates what a dedicated student of art Chandor is. He’s going to be working on a much larger canvas with his next film, about the Gulf oil spill, but for now, what you see with a Most Violent Year is a director fully committed to the art of storytelling. While many are keen to compare it to the cinema of the 1970s, or to Sidney Lumet, it can stand on its own as a story Chandor wanted to tell.

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Six nominations for Birdman and five each for Boyhood, Nightcrawler and Selma as the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards are announced. Winners will be announced on Feb. 21, 2015, the day before Oscar night.

BEST FEATURE
(Award given to the Producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Producers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole

Boyhood
Producers: Richard Linklater, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Cathleen Sutherland

Love is Strange
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Lars Knudsen, Ira Sachs, Jayne Baron Sherman, Jay Van Hoy

Selma
Producers: Christian Colson, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Oprah Winfrey

Whiplash
Producers: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michael Litvak

BEST DIRECTOR

Damien Chazelle
Whiplash

Ava DuVernay
Selma

Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Richard Linklater
Boyhood

David Zellner
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

BEST SCREENPLAY

Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Big Eyes

J.C. Chandor
A Most Violent Year

Dan Gilroy
Nightcrawler

Jim Jarmusch
Only Lovers Left Alive

Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias
Love is Strange

BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Producers: Justin Begnaud, Sina Sayyah

Dear White People
Director/Producer: Justin Simien
Producers: Effie T. Brown, Ann Le, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Lena Waithe

Nightcrawler
Director: Dan Gilroy
Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak

Obvious Child
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Producer: Elisabeth Holm

She’s Lost Control
Director/Producer: Anja Marquardt
Producers: Mollye Asher, Kiara C. Jones

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY

Desiree Akhavan
Appropriate Behavior

Sara Colangelo
Little Accidents

Justin Lader
The One I Love

Anja Marquardt
She’s Lost Control

Justin Simien
Dear White People

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD – Given to the best feature made for under $500,000. Award given to the writer, director and producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.

Blue Ruin
Writer/Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Richard Peete, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani

It Felt Like Love
Writer/Director/Producer: Eliza Hittman
Producers: Shrihari Sathe, Laura Wagner

Land Ho!
Writers/Directors: Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens
Producers: Christina Jennings, Mynette Louie, Sara Murphy

Man From Reno
Writer/Director: Dave Boyle
Writers: Joel Clark, Michael Lerman
Producer: Ko Mori

Test
Writer/Director/Producer: Chris Mason Johnson
Producer: Chris Martin

BEST FEMALE LEAD

Marion Cotillard
The Immigrant

Rinko Kikuchi
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Julianne Moore
Still Alice

Jenny Slate
Obvious Child

Tilda Swinton
Only Lovers Left Alive

BEST MALE LEAD

André Benjamin
Jimi: All Is By My Side

Jake Gyllenhaal
Nightcrawler

Michael Keaton
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

John Lithgow
Love is Strange

David Oyelowo
Selma

BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE

Patricia Arquette
Boyhood
CIO, CTO & Developer Resources

Jessica Chastain
A Most Violent Year

Carmen Ejogo
Selma

Andrea Suarez Paz
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Emma Stone
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

BEST SUPPORTING MALE

Riz Ahmed
Nightcrawler

Ethan Hawke
Boyhood

Alfred Molina
Love is Strange

Edward Norton
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

J.K. Simmons
Whiplash

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Darius Khondji
The Immigrant

Emmanuel Lubezki
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Sean Porter
It Felt Like Love

Lyle Vincent
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Bradford Young
Selma

BEST EDITING

Sandra Adair
Boyhood

Tom Cross
Whiplash

John Gilroy
Nightcrawler

Ron Patane
A Most Violent Year

Adam Wingard
The Guest

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director and producer)

20,000 Days on Earth
Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Producers: Dan Bowen, James Wilson

CITIZENFOUR
Director/Producer: Laura Poitras
Producers: Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky

Stray Dog
Director: Debra Granik
Producer: Anne Rosellini

The Salt of the Earth
Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders
Producer: David Rosier

Virunga
Director/Producer: Orlando von Einsiedel
Producer: Joanna Natasegara

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM (Award given to the director)

Force Majeure
(Sweden)
Director: Ruben Östlund

Ida
(Poland)
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Leviathan
(Russia)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Mommy
(Canada)
Director: Xavier Dolan

Norte, the End of History
(Philippines)
Director: Lav Diaz

Under the Skin
(United Kingdom)
Director: Jonathan Glazer

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD – (Given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)

Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Casting Director: Cassandra Kulukundis
Ensemble Cast: Josh Brolin, Martin Donovan, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Joaquin Phoenix, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short Serena Scott Thomas, Benicio Del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Michael Kenneth Williams, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon

SPECIAL DISTINCTION AWARD

Foxcatcher
Director/Producer: Bennett Miller
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Megan Ellison, Jon Kilik
Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Actors: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum

18th ANNUAL PIAGET PRODUCERS AWARD – The 18th annual Producers Award, sponsored by Piaget, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Piaget.

Chad Burris
Elisabeth Holm
Chris Ohlson

21st ANNUAL KIEHL’S SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD – The 21st annual Someone to Watch Award, sponsored by Kiehl’s Since 1851, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Kiehl’s Since 1851.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

H.
Directors: Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia

The Retrieval
Director: Chris Eska

20th ANNUAL LENSCRAFTERS TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD – The 20th annual Truer Than Fiction Award, sponsored by LensCrafters is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition. The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by LensCrafters.

Approaching the Elephant
Director: Amanda Rose Wilder

Evolution of a Criminal
Director: Darius Clark Monroe

The Kill Team
Director: Dan Krauss

The Last Season
Director: Sara Dosa

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In a very weak year for lead actress performances, Jennifer Aniston seeks notice for her work in the character piece Cake. Though mostly met with mixed to negative reviews, Aniston has something her competitors on the fringe mostly don’t have: major star power. I guess it doesn’t need saying that bringing Aniston in a race where Angelina Jolie is front and center could prove too delicious for gossip sites to ignore. It could turn into a big thing, like a Kathryn Bigelow vs. Jim Cameron thing and no one is really bringing it up. The reason they don’t bring it up is a good one: who cares? It isn’t that anyone cares, nor should they – a silly tabloid contrivance built to sell magazines that women inclined towards fantasy and taking sides fell way too easily into – Gone Girl anyone? Yet, it’s still out there, this presence of a presumed conflict that could rear its ugly head.

Bringing herself out front and center during Oscar season is the way to publicize a movie, especially if critics aren’t going to do it for you.  It also helps Aniston earn, potentially, a Golden Globe nod for role, maybe a Spirit Award. To get an Oscar nod she doesn’t need to appeal to critics. She needs to appeal to actors and they might be appreciative of a Big TV actress dressing herself down and stretching her acting abilities on a smaller scale.

Aniston has been quietly delivering challenging performances for a while now but hasn’t ever really put her star power front and center like she is doing now and that could make all of the difference. It WILL certainly make the difference for the Golden Globes where we will have our dress rehearsal for the potential media frenzy around the Brad/Jen/Angelina love triangle. It’s just like Debbie Reynolds/Eddie Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor!  Like that this story, this one has been hard to let go of because women don’t want to let it go. They cast Aniston as the good girl and Angelina as the bad girl, which was absurd. Every once in a while they drag it out and there they are – a fake story on the cover of Us Weekly, which has done more harm to the evolution of women than just about anything else in mainstream media.

While the gossip sites might make a big deal over it, I’m sure it’s water under the bridge for Aniston and certainly for Jolie and Pitt, who have gone on to grow their family and finally get married. Meanwhile, the ongoing fake drama spoon fed to desperate women who “identify” with Aniston has obsessed on whether Aniston will get pregnant, whether she’s married – her love life an ongoing distraction. Oh, the humanity.

But all of that aside, can Aniston break into the top five? The bored pundits keep creating scenarios that swap out one or two but I’m not sure the five is shakable. Let’s go through them.

1. Julianne Moore for Still Alice – Moore is so overdue that all she really needed was a double year like this one where she plays an aging actress resorting to desperate measures in Maps to the Stars, and a professor facing Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, the latter will likely win her award. Moore is showing up, meaning she’s already appeared in pivotal spots so far and is likely prepared to do what even Meryl Streep had to do during the Iron Lady – shake hands, talk to people, in it to win it.  She’s in the number one spot and because of her overdue status doesn’t really have any competitors except…

2. Reese Witherspoon is also very much in it to win it and has been appearing everywhere. The MVP for women filmmaking has produced two films this year, Gone Girl and Wild, for which she will likely receive an acting nomination. Witherspoon carries the entire film, turns herself inside out emotionally and if she hadn’t won already for Walk the Line she’d be the one who beat Moore. But therein lies the rub. She HAS won before. To beat a beloved overdue actress with a second win is near impossible in the Oscar race. Nonetheless, Witherspoon’s appearances are as  both producer and actress. If Wild managed a Best Picture nomination, Witherspoon could enter the race with three Oscar nominations, two for producing and one for acting – has that even happened ever?

3. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – Among the best performances of the year, Gone Girl is about to make $160 million. Pike’s never had the chance to show her range, always cast as the “pretty girl” or the “cool blonde.” In Fincher’s film she upends that stereotype, naturally, as that’s some of what the film is about. Pike is being honored at the Palm Spring’s Film Festival with the Best Actress award. She will also be making appearances but she is either about to give birth or has given birth so it’s going to be a tricky season for her, publicity wise. In Pike’s case, she will likely be in a strong Best Picture contender, which helps her but she’s up against Moore, which is really insurmountable.

4. Hilary Swank in The Homesman – here is where pundits will likely see vulnerability because Swank (spoiler alert) gives such a strong performance that when she leaves the film she leaves a giant hole, or so some have said. Swank is always good and is a two-time winner already. That either helps her or hurts her, I can’t tell, but either way if you’re talking about who deserves to be nominated you simply can’t overlook Swank.

5. Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything – here is the second actress from a potential Best Picture contender, which always helps. Jones is kind of young to be a frontrunner in the category but she’s just magnificent in The Theory of Everything. I suspect that if you love this movie you can’t  help but love her performance. The film is almost more about her life than about Stephen Hawking’s but both actors reach such a magnetic symbiosis it’s probably going to be one of those situations where they both keep getting nominated.

Therefore, I’m not seeing any wiggle room here for Aniston, although I remember saying the same thing last year only to be horrified when Amy Adams bumped Emma Thompson from the race.  It can happen. Robert Redford also got bumped for Bradley Cooper.  Late breaking films can sometimes do that. Indeed, David Oyelowo in Selma will break through, maybe even Jack O’Connell from Unbroken.

Adams, I suspect, broke through because she appeared in a popular Best Picture contender that worked overall for the industry and the critics. If they love the movie they’re going to reward the actors, especially if those actors worked with David O. Russell, a favorite of the actors.

For Aniston to break through there will have to be an extraordinary reason for that and from what I’ve been reading about Cake I’m not seeing it in the way people are responding to the film. But if Angelina Jolie can push her film through, at least so far, on star power alone, it’s certainly possible star power alone can also propel Aniston into the race, giving tabloids a big piece of meat to stew on all season.


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What really matters, as far as critics are concerned, these four groups, New York, LA, and the NBR (we’ll deal with the Golden Globes in a separate post). They matter for various reasons. First, why do any awards matter at all, from critics, to industry, to Oscar? They matter to studios for two reasons, leaving off gratification of earned career high. 1) they lend prestige, and 2) they can make the difference between someone deciding to buy a ticket or not.  The Oscar brand is, right now, the most expensive of these because it’s by far the most valuable. This is why the Academy works so hard not to dilute that brand, especially where Best Picture is concerned.

In order to address the changing face of the film industry they could, for example, have a separate category for Best Effects Driven Film. But that almost always leads to diluting the brand. Look at the Broadcast Film Critics that birthed so many new categories (to ensure more stars attended their shows and perhaps to make it easier to pick winners across the board). Is anyone going to care if a film wins Best Action Movie by the BFCA? Similarly, who is going to care if a film wins Best Effects Driven Picture? One award, Best Picture, means everything.

The first Academy Awards in 1928 had a marvelous division of “best production overall” and “artistic achievement.” That is how Sunrise and Wings both won. What a marvelous idea that is. It addresses the continual conflict between popular entertainment/money makers and artistic daring. For instance, this year, you could give Best Production to, say, Interstellar and artistic achievement to Boyhood.  But that isn’t happening any time soon, so we have to deal with what is, not what should be.

December 1st is fast approaching. The New York Film Critics deliberately pushed their awards back to be “first” in the awards race and indeed, they have taken back power from the National Board of Review in a rushed season. Before Oscar pushed their own date back a month, the National Board of Review came out so early, too early. They could push a film into the race but they were considered too early to matter.  Later, the New York and Los Angeles Critics would take center stage and really drive the race (most of the time).  But the date change smushed everything together, so that Telluride became the most important film festival (over Toronto, for instance) and the NBR had the cat bird’s seat with early critics awards. The New York Film Critics then pushed their own date back to be first. And so it goes.

Los Angeles doesn’t seem to care to be first but they like to be different, especially these days. They seem to want to vote against what New York and the Oscar pundits have decided. In other words, they don’t feel like wasting their time merely confirming what everyone else has to say. Rather, they seem eager to be different, more challenging, to go against the grain a bit.  One of the strange side effects from an abundance of supply without corresponding demand is that writers, bloggers, critics and journalists are desperate for any sort of drama in the race and often concoct their own to keep things humming along.

The National Board of Review names a Best Picture and ten more best films. The Best Picture matters, and it’s nice to see some titles on their top ten, but their top ten matters less than, say, the AFI’s top ten. Their Best Picture DOES matter, it seems.  The New York and LA Film critics also have power to influence the acting and directing categories, perhaps more than any other group in the early part of the race.  Which director is named best by New York and LA really does count for something.

These announcements will come just before the DGA, PGA, SAG and Oscar voters fill out their nominees. Human nature dictates that most of us, except the most confident and assured among us, don’t know what is really the best, or what is thought of as the best. We like what we like but we also like to get along with our fellow humans. While some of us delight in being “different,” generally speaking human beings are inclined towards harmonious agreement, a sense of belonging to something. This is often how consensus votes are formed: what unites, rather than divides, voters?

So when the early awards come down, many humans feel inclined to agree, in order to get along and find harmonious sense of belonging. This consensus builds and becomes hard to shake.  That was why 2010 was so odd, with the entire film critic community backing the Social Network while the industry rejected it outright — they didn’t want t belong to a group that admired such cold and calculating characters. They’d much rather belong to the group that admired a sweet, cuddly, stuttering King with his cute little family and a while bunch of cute British people uniting against Hitler.  It remains the most interesting Best Picture race that I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of the year 2000, when Gladiator, Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were headed for the big prize.  There was division in the ranks for various reasons, most of them good.

When you think about what New York is going to do, you have to think: big statement. The past two years they’ve picked movies most people hadn’t seen. How dramatic that they named American Hustle Best Picture when everyone already knew that the two movies that could win were either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave (both films divided the consensus, uniting them over separate issues and objectives).  That prize launched American Hustle squarely in the race at a time when no one knew if the movie would land or not. When I saw it at a SAG screening I thought it went down badly. I thought: what a sloppy mess of a movie – while “fun” and entertaining, it is not going to have a shot against the other two films. Boy was I wrong. All it took was the anointing of “best” from the New York Film Critics OVER Gravity and 12 Years a Slave for that movie to suddenly become a powerful player. The Emperor’s New Clothes look mighty pretty today.  But here’s the question, did those critics really think American Hustle was better than Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, two films they reviewed as best of the year? Or did they merely want to stand out in a season that stuffs the turkey to the point of bursting?

12 Years a Slave Metacritic rating: 97
Gravity’s Metacritic rating: 96
American Hustle’s Metacritic rating: 90

90 is still very respectable. To me, that movie is about a 70, or a 75 to be charitable. But that just shows how little I know about what critics like.

Did they think it was best or did they want to stand out? Hard to say.  The National Board of Review then named Her Best Picture. They like to pick movies that no one else has chosen, thus making sure they also stand apart. That film was launched into the race in a big way.

Los Angeles then went for a tie between Gravity and Her, eliminating any big city critic’s approval of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The film had been declared the Best Picture winner by Kyle Buchanan early in the race, which put a giant target on its back. Though it won, it was touch and go for a while there, with even the BAFTA awarding it their top prize but not screenplay, actor, etc.

Hm.

In predicting these major awards, one has to factor in the desire to be different, not just from other critics but from what the predicted Oscar winner.  That’s a tough one. In the old days, before the awards-as-overstuffed-turkey days, they would merely pick “best” of the year.

They sometimes unite, as they did in 2012 with Zero Dark Thirty. Named “best picture and director” early, by the New York Film Critics, the film went on to be named best by the National Board of Review. But remember, the Los Angeles Film Critics mostly like to set themselves apart, so they went with Amour instead, which likely pushed Amour into the race, which also then gave Michael Haneke a Best Director nod instead of Kathryn Bigelow. It wouldn’t matter in the end because people like Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan would help lead a charge that demolished Zero Dark Thirty’s chances and pit film critics against political journalists until the movie was destroyed, perception wise. I remember one Los Angeles Film Critic member saying on Twitter, “we’re not going to vote for Zero Dark Thirty, I can tell you that.”  It wasn’t because they thought the film celebrated torture or admitted Americans got information from torturing (that is exactly what the movie says and exactly what really happened) but because the movie was winning everything and LA likes to stand apart.

The last time they were united in holy matrimony was – say it with me now:

2010 – The Social Network

But let’s do a quick chart of the last ten years since the date for Oscar changed to see how the three groups align for Best Picture:

chart

Two things should be immediately apparent. 1) The Social Network is the only film in the last ten years to win all three critics groups, and the only film in their entire history to win all three groups and not win Best Picture other than LA Confidential (if you factor in the Golden Globes for Best Film Social Network is the only one to manage that).

And

2) since the Academy expanded their Best Picture category from 5 to 10, and then from 10 to a number between 5 and 10, all of their winners have gone on to be nominees.

Now, let’s get on to predictions.  We’ll be putting up our contest in the coming days but let’s start with a preliminary cheat sheet.

New York Film Critics
Top choices: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher
Would drastically change the race: Unbroken
Would really shift things: Selma

Los Angeles Film Critics
Top choices: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher
Depending on what New York decides, but we’re probably still looking at these.
The Scott Feinberg/Jeff Wells dream come true: CitizenFour
Big shocker that would change the race: A Most Violent Year

National Board of Review
Top choices: American Sniper, Selma, Unbroken
But would not surprise me if: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher

As you can see by the chart, it’s extremely rare to have the critics determine WHAT WILL WIN Best Picture but they are crucial in deciding which films start the proper race on top.  They generally pick films that are well reviewed, so you have to start there. So many films this year are surprisingly not that well reviewed as you’d think but Boyhood, Birdman and Foxcatcher seem to be the critics’ darlings thus far.

Unbroken is really the big question mark – if the New York Film Critics wanted to pull a third rabbit out of their hat they might pick that movie, which would then give the pundits further ammo to keep predicting a film they haven’t seen to win.  That still doesn’t mean it wins Best Picture at the Oscars, but it would sure help.

What they probably will shy away from overall? Gone Girl (except maybe the NBR that might name it as one of their top ten).  It earned mixed reviews from the critics and after the Social Network he’ll have to make a movie critics, not the ticket buying public, approve of.  If it were me voting, it would be a toss up between the films I think are the best of the year: Gone Girl, Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice.

How about you? How do you think they’re going to go?

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Thanks to Ryan at Indiewire for the link.

“What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough?” All things happen at once: the good, the bad and the ugly.

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Mike Nichols, the Oscar-winning director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, has died at the age of 83. I first saw those two movies on TV when I was in middle school. It was clear to me even then, even to a tween at the beginning of my adventures in Oscarology, that the films of Mike Nichols represented something unique. Something previously unseen. Because, before the mid-’60s, few American directors ever had the right combination of clout, talent and balls to film such things. It seemed to 7th-grade me that Mike Nichols must surely have helped pull American movies out of the strangle-hold the self-imposed “production code” had used to enforce stale ideas of onscreen morality for nearly 30 years. I wasn’t sure about details because I was still groping around to connect the dots, but anybody with eyes and ears could see and hear how movies had grown up in the ’60s virtually overnight. To a pubescent kid the difference was stark: there were movies where sex was whispered about and then suddenly there were movies where sex was yelled and screamed about, movies where sex was no longer a hint but the primary hot topic. Those late-night TV broadcast were my first introduction to Mike Nichols. Because by then his movies were already classics, Nichols was one of the first contemporary directors whose name I latched onto. It took a while longer for me to understand that his position on the cusp of that dramatic change in American cinema meant something more: Mike Nichols was largely responsible for that change.

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In addition to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which is being screened and will be reviewed soon, many women already have taken center stage in the Oscar race. Instead of unveiling just a thirty-minute showreel of Selma at the AFI Fest, director Ava DuVernay decided to go for broke, acknowledging that moments like these don’t come around very often. Go big, or go home was the idea. It paid off big time as it seemed that everyone involved in the film, including DuVernay, either didn’t know what a great movie they had on their hands or they were just so used to the door closing on women each and every time they’ve come up to bat.

Either way, Selma turned out to be not only magnificent, receiving not one but two standing ovations so far, but also that rare creature in the Oscar race that has the ability to take the Best Picture race as a late entry. Selma is now considered a major frontrunner to win that prize, as Mike Hogan, Katey Rich and Richard Lawson over at VanityFair.com have written. But hey, no pressure. It’s only a black woman who made a career change over the age of 40, started her own releasing company to bring more black ticket-buyers to the arthouse, whose indie career has been ticking along steadily, who won Best Director at Sundance in 2012 but was overlooked in the original screenplay category. This auteur steps into the Oscar race and the film industry as an original – there has never been anyone like Ava DuVernay. That makes it quite possible she has the ability to change the Oscar race as we’ve known it for a while.

As things stand right now, Selma is (to my mind) in the number 2 spot right behind Boyhood. I still think Boyhood could catch the consensus as it plays right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. But Selma could start winning stuff and not stop. It could Slumdog Millionaire or Million Dollar Baby its way right through this race. What helped it? Lowered expectations. Any film benefits from lowered expectations. The higher those expectations go the harder it is for any film to meet them – that is why it is important to get your movie out as early as possible, have it seen and then talked about. That is also why building momentum for late entries is so hard. Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle are two that caught the wave of last minute momentum but both were derailed for various reasons.

Even the notion of Angelina Jolie stepping into the race as a high profile director along the lines of Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell or Clint Eastwood is exciting and adds mystery to this race while also helping to erase the line between powerful and not powerful women. The more powerful Jolie is as a director, the better for all women in film. Even if the movie is a nominee and not a winner (we have no way of knowing and I’ll never be that person who predicts a film to win no one has seen) that is still a major win for women in film, that a woman could be powerful enough to shake up the race without her film even being seen. In another post I chalked that up to her celebrity – but even still, she’s using her celebrity to change the power dynamics in Hollywood and that is nothing less than admirable.

DuVernay has a distinctive signature as a director and is far more of a visual storyteller than are many of her female contemporaries. Not many women come at directing from a visual standpoint. Most tend more toward the Richard Linklater vein of depth of story and character. DuVernay’s Selma is a mood piece on the one hand, about the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the players that worked with and against him leading up to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

Though it depicts a pivotal moment in American history, and is about an American civil rights icon, it always feels like a personal story from the ground up rather than a stodgy history lesson. It is alive and vibrant filmmaking by a powerful new voice in American film.

Do we even need to ask the question of how many black women have been nominated for Best Director? How about how many black women have even gotten close to being nominated for Best Director? Ava DuVernay’s nomination, should it come to pass, would make history in so many different ways — but Selma is a good enough film that making history is really the least of it, though the excitement of that possibility is going to be hard to resist.

gillian-flynn

Gillian Flynn makes history in the adapted screenplay race as she stands to become the first female nominee to ever adapt her own novel. Plenty of men have done it. Only 2 women in all of Oscar history adapted their own material but they were plays already. Not only did David Fincher insist upon Flynn as the adapted screenplay writer (the studio wanted to go with a more well-known male writer) but his good instincts and Flynn’s talent as a writer have taken Gone Girl to #13 among the highest grossing films of 2014 — and still climbing. That level of success is extraordinarily rare and significant for any movie that isn’t a sequel or a family film. This hard R film is drawing both male a female audiences. Indisputable proof that women will show up if you give them something worth their time. Gone Girl not only gets credit for bringing women to theater, but it also dispels the tired notion, lazily floated by a defensive male demographic, that tries to dismiss the novel as “airport reading,” and claim that anything that appeals to women must be “chick lit” or “chick flicks.” That David Fincher is the director prevents them from totally disregarding Gone Girl, and its massive box-office haul makes further attempts to dismiss it sound flaccid.

Gone Girl comes wholly from Flynn’s imagination. Like DuVernay, she also made a mid-career change and at the age of 43 has achieved the kind of success most writers of any gender would kill for. Flynn bravely dives into the darker side of the female psyche. Amy Dunne in the book creates a necessary personal relationship with the reader. Women especially (although certainly not exclusively) recognize the various female tropes Dunne sends up in Gone Girl, the least of which is to harpoon at last the false notion that “cool girls” exist. This manifestation of every intelligent man’s dreams is a concoction by television and film to create a perfect woman – from the “manic pixie dream girl” to the hot chick who likes football and wears a size 2. Those women exist somewhere but they are usually a lot more flawed than they appear to be, as we all are. Flynn’s adaption of her own work is a collaboration with David Fincher, a director who always operates from his own vision, while allowing the writer their own “voice” within that collaboration. Compare The Social Network to Gone Girl to Zodiac. There are three various writer voices in three very different films. What unites them is what Fincher brings to cinema: a visual translation of the story on the page.

The same way that Stephen King’s The Shining is a wholly different experience from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you don’t hire a director like David Fincher and expect the Gone Girl on film is going to be the Gone Girl on the page. Like Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson this year as well, a cinematic interpretation becomes an artist’s rendering of a familiar story. The Amy Dunne as filtered through Fincher is far more monstrous than the Amy Dunne in the book, who, though clearly sociopathic seems like the girl next door. She’s plucky and containable. The Amy onscreen, Rosamund Pike’s Amy, is a cinematic blonde that plays into the female tropes in the language of film. Pike’s portrayal doesn’t necessarily reflect girl culture or literature. It’s cinematic instead — specifically, film noir, Hitchcockian. Fincher goes right there and together with Flynn’s funny dialogue creates an interesting concoction that gnaws at you throughout.

With Jolie’s film still hanging in the balance, Selma and Gone Girl are two strong contenders heading into the race which put women filmmakers front and center.

The other area where female directors are flourishing to an unbelievable degree is in the documentary film race. Right now, there are three strong contenders for Doc Feature that were directed by women. First, what I consider to be the best one I’ve seen so far, Rory Kennedy’s The Last Days of Vietnam about the mess we left behind when our country decided to cut and run and leave South Vietnam to be overtaken by North Vietnam. That war of ideology did not pay off in the slightest. The film is a powerful lesson about our empire, where we choose to exercise our power and why. Mostly it’s about the unsung heroes who helped the refugees flee Vietnam in the last days, risking life and limb to do so. It’s an incredibly powerful, suspenseful documentary.

The one that is getting more publicity is Laura Poitras’ CitizenFour about the moment Edward Snowden contacted Glenn Greenwald to release the information he had on our government’s NSA surveillance of its citizens and other countries. Many see this film as an important message for Americans, and see Snowden as a patriot whose goal was to get the truth across no matter what harm he did to himself and his privacy. Poitras was also contacted by Snowden at the time and was able to capture the drama behind the scenes as it unfolded.

There is also Fed Up, currently showing on VOD, directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Fed Up is one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve seen this year. It is about the dominance of the special interest food corporations making Americans fat and unhealthy then exporting that deadly diet to other countries. Why is there soda in schools? Why is there only junk food by well-known fast food empires? That is really what America has become: a fast food empire (or nation, if you will). Interviews with Bill Clinton, Mark Bittman and others, Fed Up is a film they should show in schools to help kids realize the harm our government is inflicting upon its citizens by its unwillingness to face down powerful lobbies. What a shame.

CitizenKoch (to which I am a Kickstarter donor!) bravely exposes the all-powerful Koch brothers for making ordinary Republicans in the red states bow to their every whim all in the name of Capitalism. Elena is a brooding, beautiful look at depression and suicide.

Indiewire puts the number of docs directed by women at 37% – which is astonishing. Other than those named above, here’s the list of women-directed documentaries up for consideration:

“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” – Nancy Buirski
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” – Grace Lee
“Anita” – Frieda Mock
“Art and Craft”- Co-directed by Jennifer Grausman
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” -Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” – Catherine Gund
“Cesar’s Last Fast” – Co-directed by Lorena Parlee
“Citizen Koch”- Co-directed by Tia Lessin
“Cyber-Seniors” – Saffron Cassaday
“Dancing in Jaffa”- Hilla Medilla
“The Decent One” – Vanessa Lapa
“The Dog”- Co-Directed by Allison Berg
“E-Team” – Co-directed by Katy Chevigny
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” – Chemi Karasawa
“Elena”- Petra Costa
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” – Co-directed by Dayna Goldfine
“Getting to the Nutcracker” – Serene Meshel-Dillman
“The Great Invisible” – Margaret Brown
“The Hacker Wars” – Vivien Weisman
“I Am Ali” – Clare Lewins
“Journey of a Female Comic” – Co-directed by Kiki Melendez
“Last Hijack” – Co-directed by Femke Wolting
“Little White Lie” – Lacey Schwartz
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” – Co-directed by Tamar Halpern
“Manakamana” – Co-directed by Stephanie Spray
“Monk with a Camera” – Co-directed by Tina Mascara
“The Only Real Game” – Mirra Bank
“Pelican Dreams” – Judy Irving
“Plot for Peace” – Co-directed by Mandy Jacobson
“Private Violence” – Cynthia Hill
“Pump” – Co-directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell
“Remote Area Medical” – Co-directed by Farihah Zaman
“Rich Hill” – Co-directed by Tracy Droz Trago
“The Rule” – Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno
“Shadows from My Past” – Co-directed by Gita Kaufman
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” – Mary Dore
“A Small Section of the World” – Lesley Chilcott
“The Supreme Price” – Joanna Lipper
“Tanzania: A Journey Within” – Sylvia Caminer
“Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence” – Co-directed by Elena Mannes
“20,000 Days on Earth” – Co-directed by Jane Pollard
“Under the Electric Sky” – Co-directed by Jane Lipsitz
“Underwater Dreams” – Mary Mazzio
“Waiting for August” – Teodora Milhai
“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” – Lydia Smith
“Watchers of the Sky” – Edet Wurmfeld
“Watermark” – Co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Here’s the bad news. Oscar will only accept five of these wonderful documentaries — which is an embarrassing low number that does not, in any way, reflect this flourishing branch of the industry.

The other bad news? There is only one writer in the entire Oscar race thus far who is a woman: Gillian Flynn. Every other writing contender is male.

Finally, most of the stories heading into the Oscar race are still about men. It is as though women do not matter anymore and that their stories have become so marginalized, so worthless, the film community has just decided they are expendable.

I am heartened by these women in the Best Director race, because I know that their universal stories about American heroes will resonate across the board. I also know that the majority of voters in the film critic community and the industry are male. They seem to be unwilling to respond to stories about women unless they have more options on a ten nominee ballot. With only five, their preferences will continue to lean toward male-driven stories.

But hey, you have to start somewhere.
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driving-miss-daisy-oscar

The old days of Oscar watching made it much easier for a contender to sneak by the Alien without being detected and then attacked. The old days enabled formidable studio Oscar bait to live out its intended trajectory to win Best Picture. It was managed by competitive publicists who had direct access to Academy voters. They didn’t have to contend with the gauntlet. There were just a few of them presenting their ads to voters. Voters would see the movies the studios were promoting for Best Picture and they would either agree with their submissions or not. The critics shaped the dialogue to some extent but their job was still different from the job of Oscar voters. There was a clear distinction between what the critics liked and what Oscar voters thought represented the best of their industry.

Back then, in 1999 and earlier, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, Dave Karger and a few other media reporters put out their annual Oscar predictions. They did this pretty close to when the winners would be announced. I don’t recall many outlets speculating on what might be the nominees. That was the Academy’s job.  Entertainment Weekly, I believe, did do Oscar nomination predictions but you will be hard pressed to find them archived online going back much further than 1998. When I started in 1999 everything was changing fast.

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Now, predicting the nominees is an industry unto itself. Before my site, no one was really comparing the precursors to the Academy, not even the DGA, certainly not the newly formed PGA or SAG, not the New York, Los Angeles or National Society of Film Critics.  Comparing them eventually led to influencing them. Whether these groups are voting based on how they want Oscar to vote, or if they’re voting how they think Oscar will vote, either way it is very difficult to separate the big industry unions from the Oscars.

The Oscar industry grew because studios began taking their advertising prospects away from exclusively the Hollywood Reporter and Variety to independent sites, namely David Poland’s Movie City News. From there, many of studios advertised regularly with the independent sites.  Once the money started rolling in, the big media sites adopted the policy of Oscar blogging – that is, reporting on the race regularly, not just in the few weeks leading up to the Oscars.  The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, USA Today all got into the Oscar blogging game.

Read: Archived story about Oscar campaigning from 1992 by Inside Oscar’s Damien Bona and Mason Wiley, also Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells.

Two major shifts happened to bring us to the point where we are now. 1) Oscar pushed back its date by one month, moving the Oscars from March to February to capitalize on sweeps week. That did more to ruin the Oscars as we used to know them than anything else has, even Oscar bloggers.  2) Hollywood itself changed. They looked at the box office returns coming out of China and South Korea and they thought, holy shit. If we’re looking to make money, we should make more movies that the ticket buyers in those countries like. Well, so what does that mean? Fewer “adult” films, more tent poles.  As Hollywood shifts its focus, the Oscar industry has become the last bastion of “real movie” survival.

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The Oscar industry helps films at the box office whether they end up being liked by voters or not.  Most Academy members (and old school publicists) will tell you they don’t pay attention to the “noise.” And I’d be more willing to buy that if we weren’t so good at figuring out what they might pick.  The reason we’re good at it is because a consensus vote is like the Titanic headed for the iceberg. It can’t be turned around in time to miss the iceberg. It’s too big and too heavy by that point. You can try to slow it down but best to brace for landing.  Once it’s set in motion that’s pretty much it.

Read: First Entertainment Weekly Oscar odds article from back in 1990.

So how do we build our Titanic? How do we get to a consensus? These days, the movie has to be good. How do we know it’s good? It’s been seen and reviewed. In fact, the changing demographic of film critics, the Yelpification of film criticism, has only made the Oscar more predictable because there is less of a division between industry voters and so-called critics. When you were just talking about up to 20 critics in the big cities naming the year’s best they had more power to influence. But now, they can be a better indicator of how a larger consensus might vote. This is not exclusively true but it’s mostly true.

One of the big game-changing years in the Oscar race as we know it was 2010, when The King’s Speech won the industry and The Social Network won the critics. There has never been a more divisive year in Oscar history.  The critics were so thoroughly aligned with The Social Network it won more awards than any other film ever has, including the big ones in the past, like L.A. Confidential.

Not since The Social Network have the critics wholly aligned behind one film, as though they were kind of embarrassed that they loved a movie the industry didn’t.  But there were several factors working in the King Speech’s favor, namely, when word got around that awarding this film would help prop up the British Film Council, which was about to die, that gave voters what they always need during Oscar season: a sense of urgency.

They will rarely vote for a movie just because it’s a good movie.  There always has to be something else propelling it forward. It didn’t hurt that the King’s Speech fell right into their wheelhouse – period movie, uplifting message, etc.  Scorsese, the Coens, and Kathryn Bigelow all had the advantage of having urgency behind them.  Making history, rewarding a deserving vet – people seem to want to have their vote count for something more than just confirming how good a film is.

To read: EW’s Best Picture odds in 1998, predicting Saving Private Ryan to win.

By the time Oscar voters get their ballot, that consensus has mostly taken shape. How large numbers of people are voting, what they’re thinking, it all becomes very obvious by the time nominations roll around, give or take a Llewyn Davis.

Many people are still thinking ten for Best Picture when they have to remember that we’re really talking about five. If you can call the top five — and then struggle with a few alternatives for the fifth spot — you can mostly get to what the general consensus might be for the year’s best films.

The industry changed so dramatically that studios could no longer push their major “Oscar movies” into the race as they’d done for decades. Now, the cat is out of the bag once people start seeing the movies, and since whether it is good or bad is dependent upon critics, bloggers and festival goers you pretty much have to have the goods now to win Best Picture.

In order to get nominated or win, a film has to run the gauntlet and emerge victorious or avoid the gauntlet altogether.  I always think of it like Ripley carrying Newt past the mother Alien. If you can be quiet enough and stealthy enough you will not get attacked, chewed up and spit out. You can avoid everything – debate, controversy, hype, box office scrutiny. Movies like The Help and The Blind Side managed this but both of those films, it’s worth noting, were including in the years when Oscar had ten slots for Best Picture nominations and not five as they do now.

In a year like this one there is no way The Blind Side or The Help would have gotten in because that would have meant enough voters would have put those films on their top five. Top five means probably no animated, no documentary and mostly no tent poles.  Top five usually means passionate response, beloved movie, excited admiration. It has yielded interesting results. The Academy should probably just go back to five or ten. But that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.

The gauntlet is a terrifying journey for most films. Twitter has completely altered how films are rolled out because instant reviews give you way too much distracting information that ultimately doesn’t mean much unless a film is obvious bad or obviously great.  Most of us know a good film from a bad film, especially when you’re trying to figure out how a large consensus might vote. The gauntlet loves to play the game of Oscar bait vs. scrappy underdog that could. They love to hate on the Oscar bait because they can hate on Oscar voters too – so it’s a win-win.  The Oscar bait movie is always knocked down off its pedestal as the scrappy underdog emerges victorious.

That’s one narrative. The other is the unstoppable winner, like The Artist, like No Country for Old Men.  They are good films. They are shown early and nothing shown after them is better. Even if you have a Hugo or a There Will Be Blood, they end up being too divisive to win ultimately.

This year we seem to have both at once. We have our unstoppable winner with Boyhood, which hasn’t officially won anything major yet but either will or it won’t, depending on whether the sexiness has gone out of it for critics.  We have our Oscar bait with Imitation Game and Unbroken, one has been seen the other hasn’t but has Angelina Jolie attached to it.  We have our scrappy underdog with Selma and/or Whiplash and/or Birdman.

We will know what kind of year it is going to be once the New York Film Critics announce on December 1.

The Producers Guild has ten slots, and that often throws people.  You can see how things changed by looking at the ten and then the years with five.

In 2009 and 2010, the PGA and Oscar were only off by one.  In 2011, 2012 and 2013 they were off by two or three.  While that isn’t a huge difference it does show that with ten it was easier to match the two.  Having ten slots frees up the voter to be more liberal with his or her picks. When you only have five it becomes much more competitive.

In looking over the PGA’s chart since their inception, you can really see how the shift in date (2004) has made for a much more tight consensus – so much so that there isn’t all that much of a difference between the PGA, the DGA and Oscar now.  http://www.awardsdaily.com/wiki/main-wiki/wiki/producers-guild-pga/

Finding five

So if you took last year’s nine and you tried to find what the five might be, it is always helpful to look at the Directors Guild, which has always been really good at predicting best Picture even if when it doesn’t predict Best Director.

Probably your five would have been:

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
American Hustle
Nebraska
Wolf of Wall Street
But that fifth could have also been Philomena, Her, Captain Phillips, or Dallas Buyers Club. Or those could be the stragglers. Either way, those last few films were still popular enough to make it with the trickle down votes. We’ll never know which films would be the top five but we kind of have an idea.

Last year and the year before the DGA named their nominees after the Academy had already turned in their ballots. In 2012, that completely shook up the race, so much so that DGA and Academy history was made when only two directors from the DGA’s list went on to be nominated for Oscar’s Best Director: Ang Lee for Life of Pi and Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.

But last year, things went relatively back to normal, with only one name missing between Oscar and DGA: Paul Greengrass for DGA and Alexander Payne for Oscar.

Still, going all the way back to when Oscar expanded the Best Picture nominations, 2009, all five Best Director nominees at the DGA were at least nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.  Except one: David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

That means that when the DGA announce their top five for Best Director you can bet those five will all go on to be nominated for Best Picture — unless one of those five is named David Fincher.

interstellar

The beautiful poem referenced here:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Love is Strange is already gathering early steam from its screening at Sundance.

AO Scott’s Critics Pick review:

One of the strengths of this wise and lovely film is that it declines fully to answer these and other questions. The story of George and Ben seems to have been plucked from a meadow of narrative possibilities; an interesting movie could have been made about everybody in this one. “Love Is Strange” is Mr. Sachs’s fifth feature as a director, and its title would suit almost all of them. The strangeness here may have less to do with the affection that binds the central couple than with the ties of kinship and friendship between them and the rest of the characters.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers:

In a summer of movie romances, Love Is Strange is the one that cuts deepest. Without the usual bull and spackled-on sentiment, it hits you like a shot in the heart. Director Ira Sachs, who wrote the subtly nuanced script with Mauricio Zacharias, intuitively knows where attention must be paid.

James Rocchi at The Playlist:

If “Love Is Strange” were nothing more than as showcase for its performances, it would still be superlative; Lithgow and Molina are perfect not just as Ben and George, but also as the combination they make with each other. It has been noted that early couples say “I love you” with the force of a thousand exploding suns, but that long-standing couples say “I love you” in a way that can also ask, unspoken, if it was you who happened to leave the goddamn garage door open again. That kind of love is rarely seen on film, and hard to portray when it is; Molina and Lithgow make that happen here, with all of the feeling and fights and closeness that a real couple would have.

fury

Fury will be closing the BFI London Film Fest, as well as having its release date pushed back to October 17 from November. There are some rumblings it might be the surprise screener at Telluride.

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David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars releases a few more details about the plot – it’s a surreal thriller that takes a bath in the concentrated desperation of Hollywood. This new trailer gives a rough outline of the plot. But believe me, there’s more. A lot more.

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In the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, director Rob Marshall confirms he has cut the new Stephen Sondheim song which was written for Meryl Streep’s Witch from the final cut of Into The Woods.

Last year, Streep revealed that Sondheim had written a new song for her character, “I have a new song that Sondheim wrote for me, so it’s all very, very. He gave me the manuscript of it and he wrote, ‘don’t f**k it up!'”

However, Marshall said the new song has ended up on the cutting room floor, saying, “We’ve been incredibly faithful to the original.” He promised people wouldn’t be disappointed and added, “I don’t think people will be remotely ready to hear her sing this material. The power from her is off the charts.”

The song would have been eligible for Best Original Song at the Oscars. It will however feature all the classic songs including “Children Will Listen,” “Giants in the Sky,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “No One Is Alone” and “Agony,” to name a few.

Check out the latest still of Streep as The Witch.

Meryl Streep as The Witch

Do you think it matters that the song was cut or not?

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